The Polish Politics Blog

Analysis of the contemporary Polish political scene

Month: May, 2016

Can Poland’s opposition mount an effective challenge?

Poland’s ongoing constitutional crisis has galvanised the right-wing government’s opponents. However, even if protests against the ruling party can sustain their momentum, the divided opposition will struggle to mount an effective challenge unless it can also address Poles’ broader concerns and recognise that they do not simply want a return to the pre-election status quo.

The constitutional crisis is the catalyst

The Polish political scene has been deeply polarised since the government led by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party took office last autumn following its decisive victory in the October parliamentary election. The catalyst and main focus of this has been a bitter political and legal struggle over the membership and functioning of Poland’s constitutional tribunal, a powerful body that rules on the constitutionality of laws. The opposition has been extremely successful in promoting its narrative that the government’s actions represent an attempt to interfere in the independence of the judiciary. This has provided government opponents with a highly emotive touchstone issue which they have bundled up with a number of other measures, such as a new law that they claim politicises public broadcasting, to accuse Law and Justice of undermining the fundamentals of democracy and the rule of law.

For their part, the government’s supporters deny these charges vigorously and defend its actions as necessary to restore pluralism and balance to state institutions that they say had been colonised by supporters of, and milieu associated with, the previous governing party. More broadly, they argue that many Polish institutions have been expropriated by an extremely well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elite. Nonetheless, the opposition’s narrative was picked up by the EU political establishment and Western opinion-forming media, with whom the government’s opponents enjoy strong links and many of whom share their dislike of Law and Justice. In January, the European Commission initiated an unprecedented preliminary investigation under an EU monitoring mechanism to establish whether the rule of law in Poland was under ‘systemic threat’. The government’s constitutional tribunal reforms were also criticised by the Venice Commission, an advisory body on constitutional matters to the Council of Europe human rights watchdog.

Mr Schetyna lacks an effective strategy

With 138 deputies in the 460-member Sejm, the more powerful lower chamber of the Polish parliament, the main opposition grouping is the centrist Civic Platform (PO) which was the main governing party between 2007-15. Civic Platform has a large number of experienced parliamentarians, considerable financial resources, a relatively well developed grassroots organisational network, and controls 14 out Poland’s 16 regional authorities. In January, the party elected a new leader, Grzegorz Schetyna, who was foreign minister in the outgoing Civic Platform government led by the then party leader and prime minister Ewa Kopacz, having being previously marginalised by her predecessor Donald Tusk. However, although he was not in the party’s inner circle for a number of years, Mr Schetyna is still associated with the previous, discredited government which many Poles see as representing an out-of-touch and complacent elite disconnected from the concerns of ordinary people and tainted by scandals.

Mr Schetyna also lacks charisma and, most importantly, does not, as yet, appear to have an effective strategy for re-building the party’s support. His approach, dubbed ‘total opposition’, seems to comprise: presenting himself as the most uncompromising opponent of the government; trying to outflank it on social spending pledges by, for example, arguing that the government’s flagship ‘500 plus’ subsidy programme for the first children of poorer households and every second and subsequent child in all families should be extended to include every child; and using Civic Platform’s international contacts to attack the ruling party in European forums. However, although experience suggests that Polish voters often prefer hard-line rather than more nuanced opposition parties, Mr Schetyna’s approach often comes across as opportunist and overly negative. Civic Platform is unlikely to win the backing of those voters favouring greater social welfare spending, for whom Law and Justice will always be more credible, and is in danger of simply damaging its hard-won fiscal credibility among the party’s one-time core liberal electorate. Moreover, while Poles support their country’s EU membership overwhelmingly, Civic Platform could appear to be weakening the country’s international standing by drawing European institutions into domestic political disputes.

In electing Mr Schetyna as leader Civic Platform members hoped that, as an experienced political operator, he would restore a sense of discipline and purpose to the party. However, Mr Schetyna often gives the impression that his main priority is shoring up his own leadership and exacting revenge on those who once helped to marginalise him within the party. This has started to produce a backlash, one consequence of which was that, following a purge of Mr Schetyna’s opponents which led to the defection of a number of Civic Platform councillors, the party lost control of the regional authority in Lower Silesia, once his local power base.

Mr Petru’s ‘newness’ begins to wear off

Meanwhile, a significant challenger for the leadership of the opposition emerged in the form of the ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) grouping, formed last May by financial sector economist Ryszard Petru. Mr Petru’s party won 7.6% of the vote in the October election to emerge as the fourth largest grouping in the Sejm, picking up support from voters who felt that Civic Platform had drifted away from its free market roots. However, it was the constitutional crisis that provided ‘Modern’ with an opportunity to broaden its image from being simply a technocratic pro-business liberal party. While Mr Petru is a reasonably effective parliamentary and media performer he is not a hugely charismatic figure and his party’s greatest asset was its ‘newness’, which stood in sharp contrast to the more compromised figures associated with Civic Platform. Without the political ballast of having to defend eight years in office, Mr Petru’s harsh criticisms of the Law and Justice government appeared more authentic and credible and, as a consequence, ‘Modern’ started pulling ahead of Civic Platform in opinion polls, and in some even ran neck-and-neck with Law and Justice.

However, as the effect of this ‘newness’ began to wear off Mr Petru’s party lost some of its initial momentum and the two main opposition groupings are now fairly evenly matched in the polls, and both are lagging well behind Law and Justice. For example, the ‘Pooling the Poles’ micro-blog that aggregates voting intention surveys currently shows support for ‘Modern’ at 19% compared with 17% for Civic Platform and 38% for the ruling party. Part of the problem is that Mr Petru’s party lacks both grassroots organisational structures and experienced, battle-hardened politicians in its small 29-member parliamentary caucus. Moreover, none of its other leaders have the same public profile as Mr Petru, whose novelty value has declined as a series of gaffes have allowed the party’s opponents to portray him as an over-promoted political lightweight: most notoriously when he sent a Twitter message implying that he was defending Poland’s historical Constitution of May 3rd 1791, when it was only in force for a little over a year!

‘Modern’s’ biggest weakness, however, lies in the narrowness of its programmatic appeal. Experience suggests that the social base for a purely economically liberal party in Poland is relatively small, a problem exacerbated by Mr Petru’s links with the large banking corporations which, for many Poles, symbolise the hated political-business nexus (often referred to disparagingly as ‘banksters’) that motivated many of them to vote for anti-establishment parties like Law and Justice. Initially, the polarisation of the political scene helped Mr Petru’s party neutralise this weakness by presenting itself as the ‘defender of democracy’ rather than simply a narrowly focused liberal grouping. The party’s leap in support was, therefore, the product of a very specific political conjuncture and this began to change as voters started to once again evaluate ‘Modern’ through the prism of its relatively unpopular liberal socio-economic policies.

A coalition of opposition parties appears unlikely

In fact, the main focus for mobilising opposition to the government has been the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), formed last November to protest against the constitutional tribunal reforms but subsequently broadened out into a more general anti-Law and Justice civic movement. Government supporters argue that the Committee’s activities are orchestrated by opposition politicians and vested interests hostile to its plans to radically reconstruct the Polish state and introduce sweeping socio-economic policy reforms. For sure, many of those who identify with the Committee represent the post-1989 business, cultural and political establishment, and its protest rallies have frequently been addressed by opposition party leaders. However, the Committee has been able to project itself successfully, both domestically and internationally, as a large, bottom-up movement of ordinary citizens genuinely concerned about the apparent risk to democracy, civic freedoms and the rule of law in Poland.

Thousands of Poles have participated in the Committee’s street demonstrations, the largest of which was held in Warsaw at the beginning of the May around the slogan ‘We are and will remain in Europe’, conflating the government’s apparent undermining of democracy with the danger that the country could leave the EU (although Law and Justice supporters argue that the government remains fully committed to Polish EU membership). This demonstration was, according to the (Civic Platform-controlled) Warsaw city council, attended by some 240,000 people (a figure picked up by the international media); although Law and Justice strongly contests this claim, citing police estimates (which opposition supporters, in turn, argue are biased in favour of the government) of the number present being only 45,000. In fact, even if one accepts the lower figure as more accurate, there is clearly a substantial number of Poles who feel (rightly or wrongly) sufficiently concerned that the government represents a threat to democracy to join the anti-Law and Justice protests.

In May, knowing that only a more formal political grouping is capable of ousting Law and Justice from office in an election, the Committee also launched a new coalition of opposition parties called ‘Liberty, Equality, Democracy’ (Wolność, Równość, Demokracja) with the stated aim of ‘protecting European values and the constitutional order’. Interestingly, a survey conducted by the TNS polling agency found that 38% of respondents said that they would vote for a united opposition coalition compared with only 33% supporting Law and Justice. However, although Mr Petru appeared to endorse the idea of such an alliance, Mr Schetyna (while careful not to rule it out in principle) prevented Civic Platform from joining the ‘Liberty, Equality, Democracy’ coalition. Even assuming that the anti-government protests can sustain their momentum beyond the summer break, with no single leader and lacking even a minimal common programme on the socio-economic issues that are likely to be most important to voters, the prospect of a coalition of opposition parties contesting the next election currently looks unlikely (although this could change as the next parliamentary poll is not due for three-and-a-half years).

Little prospect of an effective challenge

While the ongoing constitutional crisis has galvanised the government’s opponents and given them a sense of energy and purpose, it is questionable whether, as things stand, the divided opposition can mount an effective challenge to Law and Justice. The party’s victory last year reflected widespread disillusionment with the country’s ruling elite and a strong prevailing mood that it was time for change, so most Poles do not simply want a return to the pre-election status quo. The government’s opponents are, however, spending much of their time focusing on (arguably too abstract) constitutional issues and failing to address ordinary citizens’ more pressing social and economic concerns. It is not surprising, therefore, that the ruling party retains a clear opinion poll lead, which could solidify when voters start to feel the full impact of its generous (but costly) social spending programmes, such as ‘500 plus’.

What happened to Poland’s Paweł Kukiz?

A year ago rock star and social activist Paweł Kukiz caused a sensation when he finished a surprise third in the first round of the Polish presidential election. He held on to enough support for his new Kukiz ‘15 grouping to secure representation in the legislature after the October parliamentary election. Kukiz ‘15 has retained a reasonably stable base of support but its lack of organisational and programmatic coherence casts doubt over the grouping’s long-term prospects which are closely linked to its leader’s personal credibility.

Election success in spite of blunders

Last May the charismatic rock star and social activist Paweł Kukiz caused a political sensation when he came from nowhere to finish third in the first round of the Polish presidential election, picking up more than one fifth of the vote. Standing as an independent right-wing ‘anti-system’ candidate, Mr Kukiz’s signature issue, and main focus of his earlier social activism, was strong support for the replacement of Poland’s current list-based proportional electoral system with UK-style single-member constituencies (known by the Polish acronym ‘JOW’), which he saw as the key to renewing Polish politics.

Opinion polls conducted immediately after the presidential poll showed Mr Kukiz to be Poland’s most trusted politician and his (as-yet-unnamed) grouping running in second place behind the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party – the main opposition grouping, which went on to win a decisive victory in the parliamentary election – but ahead of the ruling centrist Civic Platform (PO). Mr Kukiz squandered much of this political capital as his grouping, which eventually adopted the name Kukiz ‘15, descended into a series of bitter rows and splits with former colleagues which caused its electoral support to plummet. These political blunders overshadowed attempts to mobilise for the September referendum on replacing the country’s proportional electoral system with one based on single-member constituencies, which was called by the previous (subsequently defeated) Civic Platform-backed President Bronisław Komorowski as a panic move to win over Mr Kukiz’s supporters. Although many commentators expected the referendum to provide Mr Kukiz with a major boost it ended in fiasco with a derisory 7.8% turnout.

In the event, Mr Kukiz turned out to have sufficient hard core supporters immune to the kind of gaffes that would have been fatal for more mainstream politicians, and in the October election Kukiz ’15 held on to enough of his support to cross the 5% threshold for securing parliamentary representation. Mr Kukiz’s grouping emerged as the third largest in the Sejm, the more powerful lower house of the Polish parliament, securing 8.8% of the vote and 42 seats. According to exit polls, Kukiz ’15 polled particularly strongly among younger voters and students picking up 19.9% and 20.2% of their votes respectively. Widespread anti-establishment feeling, which was the dominant theme of the election, was particularly evident among these younger voters, many of whom were increasingly disillusioned by what they saw as an invidious choice between moving abroad to take jobs that fell well short of their abilities or remaining in a country which offered them few prospects for the future.

Surviving its first crisis

However, Mr Kukiz’s extremely eclectic candidates list produced a potentially unstable parliamentary caucus. Having fallen out with and publicly attacked many of the local government and civic activists who formed the backbone of his presidential campaign, he came to rely increasingly upon the organisational support of smaller nationalist and liberal-conservative parties and political associations, notably the radical right National Movement (RN) which enjoys close links with Hungary’s ‘Jobbik’ party. However, the largest group within the caucus still comprised non-aligned businessmen, local civic activists, trade unionists and single-member constituency campaigners. The only common denominator was opposition to the constitutional foundations of the post-1989 Polish state and its dominant elites, together with a vague ‘anti-systemness’ that Mr Kukiz was felt to embody. This led to predictions that Kukiz ’15 would implode as soon as it was forced to confront issues that brought its ideological incoherence to the fore.

In April, Kukiz ’15 faced its first major post-election crisis. The grouping came to an agreement with Civic Platform, now the main parliamentary opposition party, and the smaller liberal ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) grouping, which appears to have overtaken the former ruling party in opinion polls, that they would not participate in the election of a new member of the constitutional tribunal nominated by Law and Justice. By removing their voting cards the opposition parties hoped to reduce the number of deputies present to below the required quorum and thereby invalidate the vote. Kukiz ‘15’s tactics led to accusations from Law and Justice that it had struck a deal with establishment politicians, exemplified by a symbolic handshake between Mr Kukiz and ‘Modern’ leader Ryszard Petru. Such accusations are extremely dangerous for Kukiz ‘15 given Mr Petru’s links to the large banking corporations which, for many Poles, symbolise the hated political-business nexus (often referred to disparagingly as ‘banksters’) that motivated them to vote for Mr Kukiz in the first place. Mr Kukiz’s supporters responded that the abstention tactic was determined spontaneously as a response to Law and Justice’s decision to bring forward the timing of the vote.

As it turned out, the plan failed when seven members of the Kukiz ’15 caucus broke ranks and cast an abstention or voted with the ruling party. One of these, Małgorzata Zwiercan, cast a vote for both herself and another (momentarily absent) colleague, the legendary former anti-communist activist Kornel Morawiecki. Mr Kukiz suggested that the deputies who broke ranks were encouraged to do so by Mr Morawiecki’s son, Mateusz, who is deputy prime minister and development minister in the Law and Justice government. Ms Zwiercan was expelled from the caucus while Mr Morawiecki, who said that she acted in line with his intentions, also decided to leave Kukiz ‘15.

In the same week, the National Movement’s political council called upon the five Kukiz ’15 deputies who are party members to resign and form their own parliamentary circle. The proximate cause of this was the publication of a tape recording where Mr Kukiz referred to one of the Movement’s leaders in vulgar language. However, there was a broader crisis in relations between Mr Kukiz and the Movement with the latter criticising the caucus leadership’s attempts to introduce a more unitary programmatic line in areas where the nationalists were at odds with its official stance, specifically: in their support for Polish withdrawal from the EU and strengthening Poland’s abortion law, and opposition to Kukiz ‘15’s tactical co-operation with liberal and centrist parties.

However, although these events exposed the underlying divisions within Kukiz ’15 and fuelled speculation about its imminent implosion, the grouping’s parliamentary caucus emerged relatively unscathed. Although Mr Morawiecki gave Kukiz ‘15 gravitas and rooted it in the anti-communist tradition, apart from Ms Zwiercan none of his other allies joined him in forming a new parliamentary circle. Plans to form a separate Nationalist Movement parliamentary caucus were also scuppered by a conflict between party leader Robert Winnicki, who resigned from Kukiz ’15, and other nationalist deputies who decided to stay. An important reason why the Kukiz ’15 parliamentary caucus has held together in spite of its ideological heterogeneity has been its relative lack of discipline in parliamentary divisions, with many deputies often voting differently from the majority.

Mr Kukiz’s charisma is still the key

Mr Kukiz’s grouping has also tried to develop a more distinctive political identity. Although it has become increasingly critical of the Law and Justice-led government, especially over the issue of party-linked appointments to state bodies, Kukiz ’15 has attempted to position itself as a ‘constructive’ opposition. It has, for example, tried not to become directly involved in the bitter and ongoing conflict over the membership and functions of Poland’s constitutional tribunal which has dominated political debate since the election. While criticising the government’s handling of the dispute, Kukiz ’15 has refused to join other opposition groupings in street protests organised by the anti-government Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), and tried to propose a compromise solution based on re-constituting the tribunal with new judges elected by a qualified two-thirds parliamentary majority.

At the same time, Mr Kukiz’s grouping has tried to outflank Law and Justice by promoting constitutional reforms and legislative initiatives that position it as a genuinely reformist ‘anti-system’ movement. For example, in addition to its signature issue of electoral reform, Kukiz ’15 has promoted: measures which they argue empower ordinary citizens, such as more direct democracy and referendums triggered by civic initiatives; shifting from a parliamentary to presidential system of government; and ending state party funding and political appointments to ministerial cabinets. It has also tried to tap into popular concerns about the potential security and societal cohesion risks posed by mass Muslim immigration by collecting signatures for a referendum on whether or not Poland should accept refugees from the Middle East and North Africa under the EU’s migrant relocation scheme.

However, as part of its appeal of not belonging to the so-called ‘partocracy’, Kukiz ’15 did not register as a formal political party thereby depriving itself of access to ongoing state funding (given its share of the vote Mr Kukiz’s grouping was eligible for around 7 million złoties per annum). Nor has it yet developed a network of local grassroots organisational structures that could act as a counter-weight to centrifugal tendencies within the parliamentary caucus. This lack of organsitionisational consolidation makes Kukiz ’15 vulnerable to hostile approaches from better resourced competitors such as the Coalition for the Renewal of the Republic–Liberty and Hope (KORWiN) grouping led by Janusz Korwin-Mikke. Economically libertarian, socially conservative and radically Eurosceptic, Mr Korwin-Mikke is one of the most controversial figures in Polish politics. However, while his party failed to cross the 5% threshold in the parliamentary election its 4.8% share of the vote was enough for it to secure an annual state subsidy of 4.17 million złoties, and a number of Kukiz ’15 deputies who are ideologically close to Mr Korwin-Mikke may end up defecting and forming a new parliamentary caucus linked to the grouping.

In fact, the key to Kukiz 15’s future prospects remains its leader’s personal popularity. Although he can be gaffe-prone and emotional under pressure, for many of his supporters Mr Kukiz’s impulsive behaviour outside established political norms is evidence of his authenticity. Although no longer enjoying the very broad appeal that he achieved last May, Mr Kukiz has held on to much of the support that he was able to garner in the parliamentary election: a March-April survey by the CBOS agency found him to be Poland’s third most popular politician with a 51% approval rating (22% disapproval, 21% neutral). As a consequence, Kukiz ’15 has retained a reasonably stable base of popular support: the ‘Pooling the Poles’ micro-blog that aggregates voting intention surveys currently shows it averaging around 11%.

An uncertain future

In spite of its ideological incoherence Kukiz ‘15 emerged relatively unscathed from its most serious crisis and its core electorate appear willing to support the grouping as long as they perceive its leader to be the embodiment of opposition to the establishment. However, Kukiz ’15 remains an unstable construct and serious question marks hang over its longer-term prospects. In the current, highly polarised political climate it will be increasingly problematic for it to find a niche between the Law and Justice government and the ‘establishment’ opposition parties. Lack of discipline in parliamentary voting also makes it difficult for the grouping to develop a more coherent programmatic identity and means that Mr Kukiz cannot be sure of delivering his deputies in crucial votes. The grouping’s continued success, and even survival, therefore, depends very much on his personal credibility, so could erode very quickly if his supporters cease to see him as the most credible fighter against ‘the system’.